- On Necklaces
This essay is dedicated to Roald Hoffmann, who has brought me back beads from Calcutta, Bangkok, Singapore, Madagascar via Tucson, Arizona, and the Atacama Desert in Chile.
What is the charm of necklaces? Why would anyone put something extra around their neck and then invest it with special significance? A necklace doesn't afford warmth in cold weather, like a scarf, or protection in combat, like chain mail; it only decorates. We might say, it borrows meaning from what it surrounds and sets off, the head with its supremely important material contents, and the face, that register of the soul. When photographers discuss the way in which a photograph reduces the reality it represents, they mention not only the passage from three dimensions to two, but also the selection of a point de vue that favors the top of the body rather than the bottom, and the front rather than the back. The face is the jewel in the crown of the body, and so we give it a setting.
When people are intensely concerned with something that is obviously impractical, anthropologists take note, for lovely useless things often express archaic structures in the human soul. Fireplaces, for example, have little reason to exist in contemporary American houses already heated by gas and electricity, yet most people want one and it is still the focus of the living room. This desire testifies, I think, to the hundreds of thousands of years during which we Homo sapiens huddled around a cave fire. We watch ourselves, rather anxiously, vanish backward down those long temporal corridors, as my daughter gazes at her infinitely multiplied small self in the mutually opposed mirrors of the beauty salon, and wonders, is it me? Our fireplaces and necklaces and tombstones say it is, they are.
So we have the corporeal-cultural custom of wearing something around our necks, useless except for the emphasis or commentary it provides. A necklace is very meta. A friend of mine in Paris, Lucie Vines, learning of my newly acquired fascination with bead craft, brought out two necklaces that she had made from objects purchased over a period of decades in the antiquarian shops of Paris. The first was a necklace made entirely of Neolithic beads, great over-sized, roundly geometrical, roughly granitic [End Page 182] things. Taken together, they were gorgeous and not a little disturbing, for they were the literal embodiment of the archaic figure of the necklace. So too the second, composed entirely of Egyptian amulets and scarabs, each two or three thousand years old. And then she emptied a box of African trade beads that she'd been saving up, and let me take my pick of them to celebrate my unwonted excursion into color and form. (She's an artist.) In three or four different experiments, I mixed them up with faux and vrai Murano millefiore beads; amber, red, and blue glass lozenges; heavy round dark crushed-glass-coated oversized beads; green aventurine beads from a garage sale; silver filigree beads from an antiques barn near Lancaster; and coral beads from the Philippines, coated in shellac, with the grain and striation of little apples.
In American culture, an interest in necklaces seems to be rather gender specific. Many men to whom I mention the enterprise feign polite interest and then change the subject, though I know some who admire, construct, and wear necklaces, including the distinguished scientist and poet to whom this essay is dedicated. Most women, by contrast, become mildly to wildly enthusiastic. A doctor in Blois brought out her entire collection of costume jewelry for me, exhibited the most splendid pieces with an account of where and when they were purchased, and then explained them all with the help of a large glossy book on the history of costume jewelry, with dozens of pictures. A former student who had moved to California mailed me six plastic boxes full of beads gleaned from a warehouse managed by an eccentric friend who just likes to amass: a trove of freshwater pearls I had to detach one by one from their settings; a feature bead painted with a naked lady; crystal...